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Jessica Moreland, Adanna Johnson-Evans, Ph.D., Marianna Carlucci, Ph.D., Rachel Grover, Ph.D.

The Impact of Mental Health Diagnoses on Perceptions of Risk of Criminality

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Research has indicated that a mental illness is a “double-edged sword”: not only do individuals have to cope with psychiatric symptoms, but they also face stigma related to their diagnosis (Corrigan, 2000). Previous research has examined the relation between mental illness and perceptions of dangerousness (Angermeyer & Dietrich, 2006), but less research has focused on its relation to perceived risk of criminality (Nee & Witt, 2013). Individuals with a mental illness are perceived to be more dangerous than those without (Corrigan et al., 2002), and individuals with schizophrenia or substance abuse diagnoses are typically viewed as being more dangerous (Edlinger et al., 2014). Research also supports that race plays an important role in the conceptualization and experience of mental health stigma (Anglin, Link, & Phelan, 2006; Zerger et al., 2014) The current study is a replication of Nee & Witt’s (2013) study, which investigated the relation between mental illness and perceived criminality. Several changes were made to ensure equality across conditions.

Final analyses included 290 participants recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Each participant was randomly assigned to read one of four vignettes describing a young adult named Sam. The first three vignettes depicted Sam with a mental illness (schizophrenia, depression, or alcohol dependency), and the fourth vignette was the control. Participants were asked to rate Sam on a series of scales indicating his likelihood of future criminal behavior, severity of the future crime, likelihood of rehabilitation, their sympathy towards Sam, how trustworthy they perceived Sam, and the race they perceived Sam to be. Participants were then asked to indicate how familiar they were with mental illness and criminal behavior. It was predicted mental illness conditions would elicit higher levels of perceived risk of criminality, and that the schizophrenia and alcohol dependency conditions would elicit the highest levels. Increased familiarity with mental illness and criminal behavior were predicted to be associated with lower perceived risk of criminality. Lastly, it was predicted that a perceived non-White racial identity would elicit higher perceptions of risk of criminality.

Presence of mental illness was a significant predictor, ( F(1, 288) = 6.43, p = .012), where mental illness elicited higher levels of perceived risk of criminality. The remaining predictor variables (type of mental illness, familiarity with mental illness and criminality, and perceived race) were not significant predictors of perceived risk of criminality. Exploratory analyses revealed the schizophrenia (β = .163, p = .041) and alcohol dependency conditions (β = .244, p = .002) elicited higher levels of perceived severity of future crimes. Perceived mental illness severity (r(240 ) = .292), trustworthiness (r(288) = -.309), and likelihood of rehabilitation (r(288) = -.380) were all significantly correlated (p < .001) with perceived risk of criminality.

These results suggest that presence of mental illness is most important in influencing participant attitudes about perceived risk of criminality, though type of mental illness may influence beliefs about severity of future crimes. The impact of race could not be examined due to participant homogeneity but should be examined in future studies.

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